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2016 Arkansas was good at second-half collapses. The Belk Bowl: its masterpiece

The Hogs turned a 24-point lead into an 11-point loss, and four more things to know from Thursday’s bowl games.

Belk Bowl - Arkansas v Virginia Tech Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Arkansas was plus-87 points in the first half this year and minus-100 in the second.

We judge a coach harshly for poor halftime adjustments when a team blows a halftime lead. We praise a coach to high heavens for the same thing if there’s a second-half turnaround.

But halftime adjustments aren’t nearly what we make them. For one thing, you’re adjusting all game, from the opening series. For another, though halftime is an opportunity for all of a team’s coaches to chat face-to-face in a less real-time atmosphere, by the time the guys in the booth get down the elevator and to the locker room, they’ve got about five or 10 minutes. Not exactly time to fill the dry erase board.

Still, sometimes a team comes along that makes you wonder ... what exactly are they doing at halftime?

The 2011 Texas A&M team was one of the most brilliantly awful second-half teams in recent memory. The Aggies led No. 7 Oklahoma State, 20-3, at halftime and lost, 30-29. They led Arkansas, 35-17, and lost, 42-38. They led Missouri, 28-17, and lost, 38-31. They trailed Oklahoma by 13-10, then lost the third quarter, 28-0. They led Texas, 16-7, and lost, 27-25.

That A&M team outscored opponents by 322-133 in the first half, an average of 25-10 in each game, and went 7-6. That's hard to do. The Aggies were good but got in their own way. They fired Mike Sherman, they found themselves a new starting quarterback by the name of Johnny Manziel, and in 2012, fielded maybe their best team since Bear Bryant was head coach.

In 2016, Arkansas wasn't that good. Their defense never had its act together for more than a quarter at a time and headed into Thursday's Belk Bowl with a Def. S&P+ ranking of 76th. Their offense had loads of potential but wasn't consistent at running the football.

2011 A&M, this Razorbacks team was not. But it was still good enough to tie or lead 10 of 13 games at halftime in 2016. And it was still bad enough in the second half to finish 7-6.

Belk Bowl - Arkansas v Virginia Tech
Bret Bielema
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

In terms of pure points scored and allowed, Arkansas did better in the second half than in the first on just four occasions this year, and two were against Louisiana Tech and Alcorn State.

The Hogs led TCU, 13-0, at halftime, then had to win in overtime. They tied Texas A&M at 17-17 in the first half and got outscored, 28-7, in the second. And in the final two games, they one-upped themselves.

  • First 30 minutes against Missouri: Razorbacks 24, Tigers 7. Next 30 minutes: Tigers 21, Razorbacks 0.
  • First 30 minutes against Virginia Tech: Razorbacks 24, Hokies 0. Next 30 minutes: Hokies 35, Razorbacks 0.

Ouch.

Per quarter, Arkansas was plus-52 points in the first, plus-35 in the second, minus-52 in the third, and minus-48 in the fourth.

Heading into the Belk, the Hogs ranked third in first-quarter S&P+, 14th in second-quarter S&P+, and 103rd in third-quarter S&P+. Those won’t look any better once final numbers are in.

Halftime adjustments may be overrated, but maybe Arkansas should figure out a different routine?

The Hokies’ first 10-win season since 2011

The Hogs had help on Thursday, however.

Virginia Tech's offense was the anti-Arkansas all year: 101st in the first quarter, 50th in the second, top-40 in both the third and fourth. Plus, Justin Fuente's Hokies had staying power: They outscored opponents by 46 points in the first half and 125 in the second. They finished 3-1 in one-possession finishes despite negative turnovers luck.

Thanks to the Belk comeback, Tech also finished with 10 wins for the first time since 2011. The Hokies faded in Frank Beamer's final seasons, averaging just 7.3 wins from 2012-15. But while you can't lean on close games to pull you through every year, 2016 was a lovely step forward. Tech's feeling pretty good about that Fuente hire at the moment.

The Pac-12 is losing to Vegas badly

Bowls are exhibitions. They are less predictable than already-unpredictable regular season games, and the reasons are countless: interim coaches, rust, dumb suspensions, etc.

And then we overreact to bowl results all the same. We use them to assert that Team A or Team B was overrated, and we make broad-brush conclusions about the quality of conferences based on these inherently unstable results. (We also then base next year's preseason rankings on what we saw, too.)

Whether we can gauge conference quality from bowl results, we can certainly figure out who's having a good or bad couple of weeks. And at the moment, the Big 12 has to be enjoying itself. The Pac-12, not so much.

NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Oklahoma State vs Colorado
James Washington
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Average performance vs. spread through 27 bowls

  1. Big 12 (plus-13.3 points per game)
  2. Sun Belt (plus-9.9)
  3. ACC (plus-8.8)
  4. Big Ten (plus-5.9)
  5. Conference USA (plus-3.9)
  6. Mountain West (minus-4.3)
  7. MAC (minus-4.8)
  8. SEC (minus-7.8)
  9. AAC (minus-8.1)
  10. Pac-12 (minus-17.2)

Because the SEC always gets first dibs on the narratives, the main story of bowl season seems to be that the self-proclaimed “It just means more” league is 1-4 so far, but that’s a bit unfair since the losing team was an underdog in three of those four losses. It’s a logical leap to take an expected result as a reason for why a conference is overrated. (On the flipside, the league doesn’t deserve any credit for two-touchdown favorite Mississippi State beating Miami (Ohio) by the margin of a missed PAT.)

Even considering underdog status, though, the league isn’t doing so hot. South Carolina overachieved compared to the spread in Thursday’s Birmingham Bowl loss to USF, and Arkansas only underachieved by about four points. But Texas A&M was a touchdown worse than expected, Mississippi State underachieved by 12 points, and Vanderbilt underachieved by nearly 20.

And yet, the league can’t hold a candle to the underachieving in the west.

Granted, the Pac-12 is the only league to have not played at least four games, but its three have all been unimpressive. Utah underachieved by 5.5 points in Wednesday’s Foster Farms Bowl win, but Washington State underachieved by 12.5 points in the Holiday Bowl, and Colorado came up nearly five touchdowns short of the spread on Thursday night in the Alamo Bowl.

That also means Oklahoma State’s 38-8 win was nearly five touchdowns better than Vegas. Baylor was 26.5 points better against Boise State. Kansas State overachieved by a touchdown.

Among Big 12 teams, only WVU has underachieved thus far.

There’s still time for these things to change. But the Big 12 and Pac-12 entered the season on relatively common ground, as did the ACC and SEC. So far, it’s pretty clear who’s winning each of those postseason battles.

A plus-16 field position margin ... and a seven-point loss

NCAA Football: Birmingham Bowl-South Florida vs South Carolina Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Because of the narratives game, the AAC needed USF’s win over South Carolina. Despite Tulsa’s huge win over CMU, the league is running second-to-last in the rankings above, and even with an interim coach, it wouldn’t have reflected well for a 10.5-point favorite to lose to an also-ran from the underachieving SEC.

The Bulls got the job done, racing to a 39-21 lead in the third quarter, giving up an 18-0 run, then winning in overtime.

As a double-digit underdog, Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks had to be somewhat pleased. Freshman quarterback Jake Bentley threw for 390 yards — 190 to sophomore Deebo Samuel, 86 to sophomore Hayden Hurst, 71 to freshman Bryan Edwards. Though USF threw the ball well, SC held star running back Marlon Mack to just 3.8 yards per carry.

Still, there had to be some regrets. The Gamecocks dominated field position — average starting field position: SC 41, USF 25 — to a level that nearly guarantees victory. And they created nine scoring opportunities (first downs inside the 40) to USF’s seven. It took quite a bit to lose the game, but thanks to a Tajee Fullwood pick six, two red zone fumbles, and a turnover on downs at the USF 12, the ‘Cocks pulled it off.

My humblest apologies to the good folks of Boulder

On November 29, I wrote about Colorado’s dream season.

Colorado’s moment in the spotlight has been assured. The Buffs are the 2016 Dream Season team no matter what happens, but they could take this a couple of steps further. [...]

But even if the season ends with losses to Washington and a bowl opponent, big-time football has returned to Boulder. Those who stuck it out through a miserable decade of CU football were rewarded with an autumn of bliss. And those who checked out a while ago got to hop back on in time to storm the field.

The dream season is why most of us keep coming back.

It’s one of my favorite pieces that I’ve written in 2016. And after it went up, the Buffaloes lost two games by a combined 79-18. After falling, 41-10, to Washington in the Pac-12 title game, they wrapped things up by allowing 527 yards in a 38-8 loss to Oklahoma in the Alamo Bowl.

My bad.